A well known and loved American constructor, driver, team owner and all together nice guy who has just turned 80! This is what our feature is all about this Friday.
He has driven in all top level motorsport since 1958 including NASCAR, INDY cars, Formula One, Le Mans and the list goes on. He has also believed to be the first driver to have sprayed champagne from the podium.
Daniel Sexton Gurney was born April 13, 1931 in New York but moved with his family to California when he was 13 years old and started getting involved in the Hot Rod scene there.
He must have had engineering in his blood as he built his race car, capable of 138 mph (222 kph) at the age of just 19. Well he did sort of have engineering blood in him. His uncles were MIT engineers and his grandfather invented the Gurney ball bearing! Dan himself also invented a little something called the Gurney Flap, which increase downforce helping race cars perform and handle better.
He tried drag racing as well as sports car racing before he started getting serious in 1957. He was invited to drive at the inaugural Riverside Grand Prix which he finished 2nd. After taking part in Le Mans in a Ferrari the following year, Just a year later he was driving for Ferrari in Formula One.
In 1960 he joined BRM which was not what he needed and eventually moved to Porsche the following year and enjoyed a few points and some podiums. However the following season the car was much improved and he managed to hand Porsche their only victory in Formula One.
As Porsche stopped competing in Formula One, Dan was hired by Jack Brabham to drive his cars in F1 and they were pleased with him as he gave them their first win.
He was particularly noted for an exceptionally fluid driving style. On rare occasions, as when his car fell behind with minor mechanical troubles and he felt he had nothing to lose, he would abandon his classic technique and adopt a more aggressive (and riskier) style. This circumstance produced what many observers consider the finest driving performance of his career, when a punctured tire put him nearly two laps down halfway through the 1967 Rex Mays 300 Indycar race at Riverside, California. He produced an inspired effort, made up the deficit and won the race with a dramatic last-lap pass of runner-up Bobby Unser.
In 1962, Gurney and Carroll Shelby began dreaming of building an American racing car to compete with the best European makes. Shelby convinced Goodyear, who wanted to challenge Firestone’s domination of American racing at the time, to sponsor the team. Goodyear’s president Victor Holt suggested the name, “All American Racers”, and the team was formed in 1965. The team concentrated their efforts in racing at Indianapolis as well as other major races, but the Eagle proved unreliable at times and although they had some wins the most memorable one would have been the one in Belgium against such names as Jim Clark and Jackie Stewart and then there was the win at Le Mans a week earlier.
1967 was his year when he won Le Mans together with AJ Foyt in a Ford GT40 and a week later he won his first GP at Spa in “The Eagle”, an American Race Car with a British engine. He joined McLaren Ford in 1968 and drove for them until he retired in 1970.
While competing in Formula One, Gurney also raced each year in the Indianapolis 500 from 1962 to 1970. He made his Indy début at the wheel of a space-frame rear engined car designed by John Crosthwaite and built by American hot-rodder Mickey Thompson. The last 3 years, he finished 2nd, 2nd, and 3rd, respectively. In 1969, he did not race in Formula One, instead racing in the USAC Championship Car series and also in CanAm. He started a total of 28 Champ Car races, winning 7 times among his 18 top tens. In 1969, he finished 4th in total points, despite starting half the races of most top drivers. In 1968, he finished 7th with only 5 starts.
Not forgetting his drives in NASCAR which started in 1962. He was nearly unbeatable in a NASCAR Grand National car at Riverside International Raceway in Riverside, California. Four of his five victories came with the famed Wood Brothers, in 1964, 1965, 1966 and 1968, in cars all numbered 121. The serial success of the Gurney/Wood Brothers combination did not sit well with NASCAR officials, so in 1967 Gurney signed to drive a Mercury Comet for legendary NASCAR crew chief Bud Moore. However, the 1967 Motor Trend 500 was won by Gurney’s teammate, Parnelli Jones, after Gurney retired with engine troubles. Gurney also made numerous appearances in NASCAR Grand American stockcars, a pony car division that existed between 1968 and 1971.
At about the time he began making occasional appearances in stock cars in the United States, he took a Chevrolet Impala to England and entered it in several “saloon car” races. In a race at Silverstone in 1962, he led the local Jaguar drivers handily until a wheel broke. When he returned with the same car for a race three months later, the local club’s technical inspectors disallowed his entry.
In 1980, Gurney came out of a 10-year retirement to help old friend Les Richter, the president of Riverside. Dan agreed to drive a second Rod Osterlund Chevrolet for one NASCAR race as teammate to a rising young star named Dale Earnhardt. As a condition of allowing Gurney to drive in the race after a 10-year layoff, Richter insisted that Gurney attend the racing school run by former teammate and friend Bob Bondurant. After Gurney’s refresher session, Richter called Bondurant and asked how Gurney had done. “He didn’t need a refresher,” Bondurant reportedly told Richter. “He was faster than me then, and he still is.” Ticket sales surged upon the announcement of Gurney’s return. In a car painted blue and white and carrying his famed number 48, Dan easily ran with the leaders.
Upon his retirement from Formula One, Gurney devoted himself full-time to his role as car maker and team owner. He was the sole owner, Chairman and CEO of All American Racers from 1970 until his son, Justin, assumed the title of CEO in early 2011. The team won 78 races (including the Indianapolis 500, the 12 Hours of Sebring, and the 24 Hours of Daytona) and eight championships, while Gurney’s Eagle race car customers also won three Indianapolis 500 races and three championships. Dan was instrumental in forming CART and the CART series.
AAR withdrew from the CART series in 1986, but enjoyed tremendous success with Toyota in the IMSA GTP series, where in 1992 and 1993 Toyota Eagles won 17 consecutive races, back-to-back Drivers’ and Manufacturers’ Championships, and wins in the endurance classics of Daytona and Sebring. They returned to the series in 1996 for three years before withdrawing again.
In 1990, Gurney was inducted into the International Motorsports Hall of Fame. He is also a member of the Motorsports Hall of Fame of America, the Sebring International Raceway Hall of Fame, and the West Coast Stock Car Hall of Fame.
As well as “Gurney Flap”, his name was also given to the “Gurney Bubble” (modification made to the roof of a GT40 to allow for his height).
He also designed and developed a motorcycle by the name of Alligator. A small number were produced and are now collector’s pieces.
Books and other media on Dan Gurney here.
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